Cayanne Korder long believed college would be her ticket out of this rural factory town of about 16,000 people. As far back as middle school, she fantasized about leaving the state to attend an elite university. But she also routinely dismissed that idea as impossible because, she said, "I wouldn't know how to make that happen and my family didn't have the means to do it."
When she got to high school, nobody disabused the ace student of that notion.
Red Wing High laid off its full-time college adviser in 2012 amid budget cuts. A foreign language teacher, Lisa Toivonen, has tried to fill in the gap by putting on events to encourage students to consider higher education, but Toivonen's time and expertise are limited. If Korder wanted to become the first in her family — she's the middle child of 10 siblings — to attend a four-year school, she would have to figure it out on her own.
Then, on the eve of her junior year, Toivonen connected Korder with College Possible. The 19-year-old St. Paul-based nonprofit has long worked to help low-income students in urban high schools get into college, but three years ago it started a program to pair high-achieving rural students in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Oregon with coaches to guide them virtually through the application process.
From her office in St. Paul, Korder's coach, Diamee Yang, provided ACT prep materials that Korder credits with boosting her test score by about 6 points, to an impressive 33. Yang reviewed drafts of Korder's application essays, walked her through the completion of the Common Application and let her vent about academic and personal angst. Through monthly calls and countless texts and emails in between, they also researched schools and financial aid prospects together.
The outcome: Korder heads this fall to Emory University on a full scholarship through the QuestBridge program, which connects talented low-income students with financial aid.
"Out-of-state was always what I wanted but it wasn't attainable until I started conversations with my college coach," said Korder, sitting in a bare conference room that once served as the high school's Career Placement Center until the college adviser assigned to manage it was laid off. Shelves that once teemed with college brochures, ACT prep manuals and scholarship applications are now empty; an unpacked box labeled "ACT Planning" sits on the floor.
While children from affluent families often receive private test prep, college essay-writing assistance and hours of individualized guidance on where to apply for college, many students at public high schools across the United States barely get any help at all. Nationwide, school counselors are overworked and underfunded, serving a median of 482 students each, nearly twice the 250-to-1 ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association. In Minnesota, that ratio was 681-to-1 as of 2016, according to state data, among the highest in the country.
Many schools, like Red Wing High, don't employ any full-time college counselors at all. Although an industry of college-access nonprofits has sprouted to fill some of these gaps by providing low-income students in urban areas one-on-one advice and instruction, that new industry has struggled to figure out how to efficiently reach kids in far-flung locales.
In recent years, though, a variety of virtual counseling models have popped up, from College Possible's Navigate program, which operates primarily via phone, text and e-mail, to a pilot from College Advising Corps, debuting this fall at two rural Texas high schools, which relies primarily on video conferencing. In both cases, the counseling is dispensed by recent college graduates, many of whom are doing this work to fulfill their AmeriCorps service. Both programs are a departure from the in-person college advising the organizations provide in suburban and urban areas.
These programs are relatively untested and currently reach only a tiny share of rural students. But their backers say that if they prove successful, they could expand to help lift the prospects of more teens from rural communities who, despite graduating high school at higher rates and earning better overall test scores than their urban and suburban counterparts, remain less likely to attend college.
"If we can prove that this works and that it delivers the same outcome for students as having advisers full-time in school on the campus, then we're opening a lot of opportunity for us to get into the nooks and crannies of states where we just can't place advisers normally," said Amy Jones, senior director of innovation at Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based College Advising Corps, discussing the Texas pilot program.
It has been a significant oversight. The U.S. has about 9 million students who attend schools in communities of fewer than 25,000 people, and more than 25 percent of U.S. schools are considered rural, according to a 2017 report from the Rural School and Community Trust.
Overall, just 29 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds from rural areas are enrolled in some form of higher education, below the overall average of 42 percent and far less than the 48 percent of students from cities enrolled in higher education programs, according to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. That's despite the fact that the overall rural high school graduation rate in the 2015-16 school year was 87.3 percent, three points above the 84.1 percent average reported for the same school year by the NCES. Rural students also tend to perform better on National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, scoring higher than the national average.
One ambitious effort to improve college access for rural students is CollegePoint, a program launched with $25 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2014 that provides money to College Possible, College Advising Corps and two other similar nonprofits. CollegePoint provides virtual counseling to thousands of students who scored in the top decile on the ACT, SAT or PSAT and have a combined household income of less than $80,000. Rural students make up only about one-third of CollegePoint's enrollees, but the program's sheer volume — 19,000 students were enrolled in 2018 — means it reaches more of these students than any other individual effort.
"The virtual approach allows you to reach a much larger scale, thousands of students versus hundreds," said Jenny Sharfstein Kane, who oversees college access programs for Bloomberg Philanthropies. "The program has been really innovative because we are able to get to those rural students who might be the only person in their family to go to college. Their coach might be the only person who's presenting options to them that are really viable because many of the more selective schools actually have the better aid packages and are able to provide them with a better opportunity financially than an open-access institution."
That was the case for Calyssa Stevenson of Swansboro, North Carolina, who felt lost as the college application process approached. Swansboro High, in a tiny tourist burg of about 3,200 on the Atlantic coast, had one school counselor for the 600 students in 11th and 12th grades -- and that counselor's job included providing mental health counseling as well as giving students assistance planning post-high school options.
"My dad never applied to college so he didn't know what to do, and he told me to see the counselor, but the counselor was always busy and I didn't want to disturb her all the time, so I felt lonely in the process," said Stevenson, who was paired with a coach based in Iowa through CollegePoint and is heading to North Carolina State in the fall. "I didn't think I would be involved in a program like this because I thought it would cost money, so I felt really, really relieved."
Still, most college-access programs focus primarily on getting high-achieving rural students, who usually already see themselves as college-bound, into better schools. The College Advising Corps pilot, funded by the Texas Education Agency, is different in that the virtual counselors based in Austin will be assigned to provide college guidance throughout the school day to all students, regardless of their grades, at two high schools in the Coastal Bend area of the Lone Star State. It's a spin on the group's usual model of placing advisers on a school's campus full-time, but persuading recent college graduates to live in a remote site is challenging, Jones said.
Jones would like to extend the program to other rural parts of the state, but only if it proves successful. "We will be evaluating this very, very closely," she said.
For now, research on existing virtual programs and their impact is scant. A randomized controlled trial comparing CollegePoint enrollees to similar-achieving students without CollegePoint coaches in the Class of 2018 found a statistically insignificant difference between the number in each group who went on to a top college.
The study did not specifically examine the program's impact on rural students, but CollegePoint officials say it did find that first-generation college students who received coaching were 25 percent more likely to go on to top schools than the first-generation students in the control group.
Not all counselors are enamored of the virtual approach. Kami Aguilar, a counselor at a brick-and-mortar high school in Happy Valley, Oregon, found the electronic format limiting when she worked from 2012 to 2015 as a virtual counselor for an online charter school.
"It was very difficult to build relationships when I only saw the students in person once a term," Aguilar recalled. "It was a difficult job for me because I'm a face-to-face person. I missed seeing students every day and really getting to knowing them."
And there are clear limits to the gaps a virtual counselor can fill in. Many of the factors impeding rural students' progress toward college are similar to those in urban areas — the paucity of advisers working in schools, the lack of family with any experience of higher education, and concerns about how to pay for college — but the isolation itself adds other challenges.
As another rural College Possible student, junior Jill Wingham of Blooming Prairie, Minnesota, explained: "In bigger towns or areas, you have those schools so you know what it's like because you can see the kids or you just know people who go to college ... I didn't even set foot on any campus until last year. I'd never been to a college."
And Addie Steffen, Wingham's College Possible coach, said while she can help enhance and highlight the best features of a rural student's experience for their applications, she finds that opportunities available to ambitious students in remote communities are inherently more limited.
"In the bigger cities, there would be enrichment programs, job-shadowing opportunities," Steffen said. "If someone is interested in, say, oceanography, there is usually someone you can connect with and talk about those different areas and careers. There are some limitations."
Korder realized this first-hand in early April when she attended a selective pre-college program at Emory in Atlanta. "I'm looking around and talking to students all coming from private schools and preparatories and hearing the mind-boggling opportunities they've had," she said. "They have students who are conducting research at universities. That's what they get to put on their resume."
While some of that is beyond the scope of a virtual intervention, College Possible and College Advising Corps both focus on fundamentally altering the college-going culture of the rural schools where they work. And part of that involves having successful examples like Korder to show fellow students what is possible.
Korder was the only member of the Class of 2019 at Red Wing High to sign up for College Possible, but her evangelism on behalf of the program led 14 students in the Class of 2020 to sign up in the beginning of their junior year. One of those students is Andre Ziemer, 17.
Ziemer, whose childhood was marked by foster care and homelessness until he was adopted into his current family eight months ago, is in the process of firming up a list of colleges to apply to. He's partial to tiny Augsburg University in Minneapolis, in part because of its graphic design program, which he discovered with guidance from Steffens, his adviser.
"The last call she had with me in March was a really good one," he said. "She was talking to me about my college essays and how I should construct them."
Still, Ziemer said, he wishes College Possible was open to more Red Wing students. The program has just three coaches who work with 80 to 100 students across the state. It doesn't have the money to hire additional coaches, so enrollment is limited to students with a 2.5 GPA or higher who receive free or reduced lunch, a common measure of poverty.
"Nobody really knows what to do, where to go, how to approach it," Ziemer said of his classmates. "I really think when I applied to [College Possible], I think the whole grade should've been in that meeting not just the 20 of us who might qualify. It was a no-brainer."
Correction (June 13): This story has been updated with the correct name for Cayanne Korder's counselor, Diamee Yang, and with the correct spelling of Addie Steffen's name. The figure for the likelihood of first-generation college students going on to top schools after receiving CollegePoint coaching has also been updated. It was 25 percent.